Graded readers: what are they and how to use them

During many years of teaching English, one thing I’ve consistently used with my students have been graded readers (you can see the ones I’m currently using in the cover photo at the top). There are different types of those – some are designed for native speaker children – but the ones I’ll be discussing here are those intended for learners of foreign languages; English in particular, but the same principle applies to other languages. So, what exactly are graded readers and how are you supposed to use them?

Basically, a graded reader is a short book using simplified language. It may be an adaptation of an existing book (for instance, many classics of world literature are available as graded readers), or a completely original work. Some are text-only editions, others are more like comic books. The word ‘graded’ means that each such book uses grammar and vocabulary adapted for a particular grade, i.e. level, which is clearly indicated on the covers.

One thing that sometimes causes confusion is the fact that some publishers continue to use their own grading system, meaning that a book labeled ‘intermediate’ by one publisher may in reality be closer to advanced level and thus too difficult for the learner – and vice versa. Or the levels may be defined by the number of ‘headwords’, rather than something easily compared and matched with the now common CEFR levels. Before you buy a graded reader, best consult your language teacher or flick through the book yourself, if you can, to see whether the language in it is too easy or too difficult for you. 

Ideally, it should be at the exact level you’re at: a reader that is too easy won’t be challenging or interesting enough – you won’t learn anything new; a reader that is too difficult will defy the point of using it, because this type of reading is supposed to be effortless and enjoyable, which it certainly won’t be if you have to look up every other word.

Having said that, well designed graded readers always introduce some new vocabulary, but you should be able to easily figure out its meaning from the context, with the help of illustrations, footnotes or endnotes. Many graded readers also include glossaries, where you can find simple definitions and explanations. Another thing they often include are exercises designed to practice and reinforce various grammar points typically covered at the level in question.

On top of all that, many of these books are available with the accompanying CDs – or cassette tapes in the bygone era when I first started using them. I still remember the tapes of Sherlock Holmes stories that I listened to… Well, I won’t say when – you’ll think I’m very, very old! Anyway, audios are an extra resource that I absolutely love: some students may not be avid readers, but they might enjoy listening to a story. I always advise students to experiment and use both the written text and the audio, and combine them in any way they like. There’s a number of reasons why that would be a good idea, and I’ve already touched on those in previous posts on the subject of listening skills (such as here and here). Trust me, combining reading with listening will do your language learning a world of good!

Working with students, I find additional ways to incorporate graded readers into our lessons, either by having a chat about what they’ve read, or doing some of the exercises together. For such slim volumes, graded readers are veritable treasure troves, both for students and teachers; there’s a lot you can squeeze out of them. 

Finally, let me mention some of the leading publishers of English graded readers. As you’ll see from their catalogues, there’s bound to be something that interests you.

  • Oxford Bookworms Library – graded readers for secondary and adult learners; levels 1-6
  • Macmillan Readers – from Young Learners’ to Upper Intermediate; the website includes online Book Club and other digital resources
  • Penguin Readers – from Starter to Level 7; the website includes tests, lesson plans and different activities 
  • Pearson English Graded Readers – levels 1-6; the website includes additional resources for teachers and learners
  • Helbing Readers – Helbing titles are easily searched by CEFR levels 
  • Cambridge Readers – Cambridge University Press titles also correspond to CEFR levels; you can also search them by ‘English type’: British English, American English, International English

There are also other publishers, so this is by no means an exhaustive list. Check what’s available on your local book market, in case online shopping isn’t an option for you. (I probably shouldn’t be saying this – copyright and all – but if you do some googling, you’ll probably be able to find some free PDF downloads, so maybe you can do a bit of sampling).

If you’ve already used graded readers, either as a teacher or learner, do post your comments below on how you use them and whether you’ve found them helpful. And if you have a favourite one, do tell us about it!

P.S. A slightly modified version of this post is also available in Serbian.

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